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Ask the passengers, p.16
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       Ask the Passengers, p.16

           A. S. King
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  “They closed down your bar,” I hear from behind me. It’s Jeff Garnet. “Did you see in the paper today?”

  I take a deep breath. “It wasn’t my bar. And no, I didn’t see that.”

  “Well, they closed it, and they arrested the owner, I think.”

  “Huh,” I say. “I guess that’s what you get for serving underage kids.” What else am I supposed to say? I turn around so he’s not talking to my back anymore.

  “I’m really sorry, Jeff. About everything. I shouldn’t have lied to you. I was totally wrong, and I—”

  “It’s cool, Astrid. I mean, I think you’re really nice, you know?”

  Oh, man. I am so not nice. I am the opposite of nice when it comes to what I did to Jeff Garnet. I want to say I am scum because I feel like scum. But before I can, he talks again.

  “Your mom called my mom last night,” he says.

  I just stare at him like I’m totally scared of what he’s going to come out with next. Because I am.

  “Did you hear me?”

  “Yeah. Sorry about her. She’s nuts.”

  “She asked my mom to talk to me about how you just made a mistake and went there so you could drink and dance and stuff. Is that true?”

  “Yeah, kinda.” No, not at all.

  “She wanted to know if I’d go out with you again.”

  “Oh, God,” I say. “I’m really sorry. Just ignore her. She hasn’t been able to locate her mind-your-own-business medication for years.” I think my cheeks are actually purple. They physically hurt.

  He’s fidgeting as though he’s actually about to ask me out again. I can see his leg going all jiggly. “Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m kinda going out with Karen Koch now,” he says.

  Do I look as relieved as I am?

  I say, “I am so happy to hear that! You guys are perfect for each other. God! She’s been into you for a long time.”

  I send my love to Jeff Garnet. Jeff, I love you. Not in that way, so don’t even try it. But I love you since you’ve been standing here talking to me like a normal person for more than a minute. I hope Karen totally lets you in her pants, okay?

  “Cool. So we’re cool?” he says.

  “Totally. And thanks for coming to talk to me. You’re the first person who’s talked to me for more than a few seconds in a whole week.”

  “Shit—you know it’ll blow over. Everything blows over around here.” We nod at each other. It makes me feel better. Then he says, “But that Justin and Kristina thing was a bit hard to take, man. I can’t believe they lied like that. And I used to change next to him for gym all the time.” He makes a cringing, concerned face.

  “Don’t worry. He’s not into you.”

  “Yeah, but still. It’s weird,” he says. “I hear he’s in jail now.”

  I shake my head. “Don’t believe what you hear.”

  As he walks away, I think about what he said about Justin in the locker room, and I think about Ellis and her gross towel thing this morning, and I figure out what confuses people so much about other people being gay. They think it’s all about sex.

  Humanities class is abuzz with paradoxes. Most people are still keeping them secret, but one, in particular, is tossed out for Ms. Steck and me to hear.

  Penny Uppergrove says, “Love is between a man and a woman.”

  Ms. Steck continues to work with another student on a computer in the back of the room. Clay turns around and says, “I think that’s one of the best ones I’ve heard.”

  “Thank you,” Penny says.

  “So what you’re saying is that love can’t possibly only be between just a man and a woman because that lacks all common sense. For example, a woman can love her child, correct? And a boy can love his dog. And I, personally, love peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Good paradox. Well done.”

  “But that’s not what I meant,” she says. Then she gets flustered and starts going through her notes.

  “Oh. Then color me confused,” Clay says. “What else could you mean?”

  “Shit,” she says. “So a Socratic paradox is about something that probably isn’t true, but you make it sound true?” She shuffles through her notebook and finds a part she highlighted in pink. “So I should say the opposite.”

  Clay rolls his eyes. “Whatever you say, you can’t really know it’s true unless you can truly define it,” he says.

  She scribbles a little, and I look in my notebook at my paradox that I already sent to Ms. Steck via e-mail. Equality is obvious. I think this raises a sufficient amount of questions that I could argue all day about it.

  Penny holds up her hands. “I got it! I got it! God! Why does this philosophy stuff have to be so difficult? Give me calculus any day!” She looks at Clay. “How about this?” She’s just about to read, and then she stops. “Shit. No. That doesn’t work.” She goes back to her scribbling.

  Ms. Steck stands up and moves to her desk. “Today’s the day! I need those paradoxes on my desk before you leave. Don’t be worried if you get a better idea over the weekend. Philosophy does stuff to your brain. Makes you change your mind a lot. That’s good. I don’t care if you come to me Wednesday morning with a completely different paradox from the one you give me today. Just give me something today! And don’t forget to research what you’re going to wear. It all counts toward your grade.”

  They say: She gets off on seeing girls in togas.

  Penny hits her desk with her fist. “I got it!” She writes it down and shoves it into her folder.

  Ms. Steck sits on the edge of her desk. “Before we go into Plato’s cave for the last day, I want to talk a little about next week’s Day of Tolerance, because this kind of stuff is what philosophy is all about. I’m sure you all have your own ideas of why the administration is doing it, and I’m sure you all saw the wonderful display I’ve had on my blackboard for the last few days.” She refers to the signs that are still taped on the board. My arrow is still there. UNNECESSARY APOSTROPHE. FAIL.

  “Since we all have wildly different ideas about ethics and morality, I was thinking about how to approach this in class, or if we even should. And then”—she snaps—“then! I got a great idea.

  “Since you’re Unity Valley’s best and brightest, I was thinking I could do an experiment.” She hands out little pieces of gray quiz paper.

  “With all the recent votes and discussions in the news, I think we’re all pretty sick of talking about gay marriage. So I don’t want to talk about it. Instead, let’s vote. I want you to write one thing on the paper I’ve just handed you. I want a YES or a NO. Yes means you vote YES for gay marriage rights. NO means you would not give gay people the right to get married. Everyone got that?”

  We all nod.

  “Then toss your votes into the box here.” She puts a shoe box on Clay’s desk.

  Penny Uppergrove raises her hand.

  “Yes, Penny?”

  “Is this part of our grade?”

  “Nope. Just a fun in-class exercise,” Ms. Steck says.

  I write YES and fold the paper in half and in half again and put it in the box.

  After a final discussion about Plato’s cave, we are left to our usual ten minutes of free time. Some are still struggling with their paradox, and they summon Ms. Steck to their desks or to the computer lab.

  Before the end of class, Ms. Steck takes the shoe box off Clay’s desk and tallies the votes. She writes the results on the board.

  NO wins, twelve votes to ten. Ms. Steck doesn’t say anything. She just leaves the results on the board above the ugly homophobic signs, and all I can think of is what she called us: Unity Valley’s best and brightest. And we’re three votes short of equality.

  I snap a picture of the results and the signs with my phone. Since Justin isn’t around, it seems someone should document it.

  The first and last time I see Kristina today is at lunch. She’s sitting at a table with her popular friends. I sit by myself in a booth to the right. When they all look over at me, I c
an imagine what she’s saying. The lie. Maybe even bigger lies. Maybe a skyscraper of lies. I think about what she said to me last night. How I had nothing to lose and how she had everything to lose.

  I count eight people at her table. I count zero at mine.



  DEVEINING SHRIMP HAS BECOME my Zen thing. I know they’re going to ask me to do it, so I look forward to doing it, and I make sure I do it well. Sometimes it means I go a little slower than they’d like, but then they can fire me. I’ve seen Jorge’s cousin devein shrimp. His method is called mangling the shrimp.

  I have to retrieve a box of shrimp from the walk-in, and I stop for a second once the door closes behind me, and I breathe. In. Out. In. Out. I’d put my bed there. In. Out. In. Out. I’d put my vanity there. In. Out. In. Out. And I’d put a desk over there, under the light. I look at the cage around the lightbulb. I know it’s caged for protection—so no truck-driving supplier tosses a box into the corner and shatters the bulb. But I can’t help seeing a cage for what it is. Sure, it protects the bulb, but maybe if people weren’t so careless, then nothing would need to be caged.

  I get my box of shrimp and let the door slam behind me. I’m happy Dee didn’t come in after me. I’m glad to see her, but I’m still mad about what she said the other day.

  When it’s time for Dee to chop veggies, she stops every few minutes and smiles at me. I try not to smile back, but I can’t help it. She probably forgot that she even said that thing about how I should come out. She’s just in love with me. And then I realize something. Dee doesn’t care about all the rumors. She doesn’t care about anything except her life, her future, and playing hockey and getting into Bloomsburg and playing more hockey. And being happy. She’s like Frank S. but a lot cuter. Except Frank wouldn’t require me to place myself in a labeled box in a public place in order to hang out with me. Frank would never want to put me in a cage.

  “You okay?” she asks.

  I snap out of it and go back to my shrimp. “Yeah. I’m good.”

  “You ever gonna finish with that shrimp?” Juan asks.

  “Metaphysically? No. In reality? Yes. In about four minutes,” I answer.

  He looks at me quizzically and then goes back to his office.

  When I’m done, I rinse the shrimp and then clean up the sinkful of shrimp veins and wash my hands and then get to the dishes. It’s a short day again—a dry season until Christmas catering, Jorge says.

  “I can’t believe you haven’t told your parents yet,” she says. We are in her car with the heater on.

  “I don’t see what the big deal is,” I answer.

  “The big deal is that you’re still hiding, and it doesn’t make any sense because everyone knows!”

  “I’m not hiding!”

  “You’re hiding. And you’re ashamed.”

  “I am totally not ashamed. I just haven’t told my parents. Because they know anyway.”

  “But you haven’t told them.”

  “I didn’t need to. They had the neighbors to tell them, didn’t they?”

  I tell her about Kristina and the lie. I tell her about the week at school. Still, she’s snarky.

  “You should just grow a pair and come out.” She tries to say this jokingly.

  “I will,” I say, feeling like a scolded kid. I get out of the car without a kiss or an I love you, and I practice the whole way home in the car.

  Okay. I have something to tell you. I love Dee Roberts, and I’d really like it if you could accept her as my girlfriend and we could just put this week behind us.

  I’m sorry it took me so long to talk about this, but I was scared. I love Dee Roberts, and I want you to meet her so you can love her, too.

  Okay, I can tell you the truth now. I love Dee Roberts, but I’m still a virgin.

  Look, I know you need the truth. I’m sorry it took me so long to tell you, but this isn’t easy. I have a girlfriend.

  When I walk into the house, no one is around. There is no one to say any of my practiced lines to. I use this as a sign from the gods that it’s just not time yet. My brain people say: You will not be pressured.

  After I clean my room, I continue to compile my enormous list of questions for the Socrates Project. It’s amazing how many questions can come from Equality is obvious. First, to define equality. Then to define obvious. I mean, I can even try to define is if I want, because equality isn’t really working in the present tense, is it?

  Because equality isn’t really obvious to most people.

  And I don’t mean to say the world is filled with racists or sexists or homophobes. I mean to say: Everybody’s always looking for the person they’re better than.

  In fourth grade, it’s the second graders. In ninth grade, it’s the eighth graders. Adults look at teenagers like we’re the stupidest creatures on the planet, when really we’re just lining up to take their jobs in T-minus five years.

  I am equal to a baby and to a hundred-year-old lady. I am equal to an airline pilot and a car mechanic. I am equal to you. You are equal to me. It’s that universal.

  Except that it’s not.

  When Ellis appears at the dinner table, she is in full sulk.

  Mom says some stuff to her without looking, and then when Ellis doesn’t answer, she turns and says, “That does it! I call an impromptu Mommy and Me night!”

  “No,” Ellis says.

  “I’m not taking no for an answer,” Mom says, and she proceeds to drag Ellis from the chair and up the steps.

  By the time Dad gets home with the pizza, the two of them are screeching like preteens, and all is back to normal. If you want to call this normal. Mom tells him that she’s made reservations at the country club. “Don’t wait up!” she says.

  He looks at me and tosses the pizza onto the table, and I dish out a little salad and pour iced tea, and we’re both on our second piece of pizza when Mom and Ellis leave through the front door without saying good-bye.

  I think again about how Dad and I could fix this. I mean, he could be warmer, right? Not so disconnected and stoned? He could at least say “Have a good time!” and demand a kiss or something. And I could giggle with them and show them that it doesn’t bug me that I’m not invited. Because I’m over it.

  He leans back and reaches into the fridge for a beer.

  “Want one?”

  I consider it for a second. “No, thanks.”

  He closes the fridge door, twists the cap off his beer and drinks.

  They say: My God, look at him. He’s like a dog in a cage.

  “So, here’s to this week being over,” he says. He holds up his glass, and I pick up my iced tea and clink with him, and we both drink.

  “The curtains look great,” I say.

  “Shoot me now,” he says.

  “I’m really sorry I put you through all that.”

  “You mean the curtains or the other shit?”

  “All of it,” I say. “I hate lying to you. But I can’t tell her anything or else—you know.”

  “No. Or else what?”

  I sigh. “Or else she’ll ruin it?”

  “Oh, that,” he says, and takes another drink. “Yeah.”

  I go to bed after the SNL Weekend Update, and I hear him come up at around one. I don’t hear Mom and Ellis come in. I remember waking up at around four and fearing that they’d both been in an accident. I remember wondering how it would feel to lose them.

  My alarm goes off at five. I take a quick shower and see that Ellis’s shoes are on the floor in the bathroom. This makes me happy, because I want to make things okay, because she’s my sister and I still want to save her from the flying monkeys.

  On Sunday morning, I ask Juan, “Why do people love shrimp so damn much?” He shrugs and drops the box on the sink’s edge for me, and I start deveining before six. Dee is late and gets in at 6:15.


  “Forgot to set my alarm.” She turns to Juan. “Sor

  “Slow day, ladies. You’ll be out of here by ten, I bet.” He goes to the schedule on the wall. “And no work at all next weekend. Have a happy holiday, yo.”

  Once I get set up with my knife and my shrimp, Dee asks, “Did you do it?”

  “Do what?”

  She lets her face fall into a disappointed scowl. “Forget it,” she says, and goes back to her brassicas.

  “Nobody was home,” I say. “What was I going to do? Wake them up at five this morning? I didn’t know you were on a strict schedule.” I’m aware that came out a little bitchy, but she’s being too pushy, so I don’t care.

  “Sorry,” she says.

  After some silence, she says, “You ready for your big day this week?”

  “Yep,” I say. “I still have to make my toga.”

  Jorge hears this. “You having a toga party?”


  “Jorge, you didn’t know that Astrid here is a brain? She’s, like, a real live philosopher.”

  “Seriously?” Jorge asks.

  I smile. “I guess.”

  He nods. “So what’s your philosophy on shrimp?”

  I stare at the small case of it. “Shrimp is good.”

  “That’s it?”

  “Or shrimp is bad,” I say.

  Jorge looks at me like I must be high. Frank S. gives me a thumbs-up from over by the big industrial mixer. Dee still has a look on her face like she’s losing me. Because she might be losing me.

  At home, we eat DIY dinner because none of us are hungry at the same time. I do leftover pizza. Cold. Ellis eats a can of meatballs. Mom has a salad. Each of us seems to be in our own little world with our own little shadows.

  After dinner, I go out to the picnic table and I try to think about the Socrates Project and my toga, but I’m distracted by the realization that I’m completely alone right now. No friends. No family. No Dee. I look at the planes and picture the passengers feeling sorry for me for shutting people out. For having to do what I have to do next, which is figure out all the ways to not be completely alone. I ask them: Do you think one day they might let me love them again?

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